By Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason
Bloody foot prints were dried on the steps of the porch. They lead through the front door and into the living room. Ms. Gretchen sat in an old recliner, her favorite place to sit, her body stiff. The officers were careful to avoid disturbing anything as they approached her corpse. The pathologist was already on the scene, combing over the area.
“Look at the sole of her left foot,” Officer Rainey Kline pointed out.
“Blue glass, same type littering the front yard,” her partner, Darryl Warren, answered.
“Someone must have thrown some bottles against her house,” she said.
“Yeah, but blue glass? That’s not very common around here. If it was brown, like some beer bottles, I wouldn’t question it.”
“You’re right, where did the blue glass come from?” she asked.
“Who knows, there’s a group of slingshot wielding hooligans known to terrorize around here,” he said, “but they’re only kids, not killers.”
“Looks like she might have fallen outside, then came back into the house before suffering a heart attack,” the medical examiner said as he pointed at some bruising on her knees and an opened bottle of medication on a table beside her chair. The pills spilled as if opened in haste.
“So there’s no sign of foul play?” Officer Kline asked.
“Besides someone busting up her bottle tree out front? No,” the pathologist answered.
“Bottle tree?” Officer Warren asked.
“I saw what was left of it out there. Look it up. They’re fairly common in other regions of the country.”
The two officers nodded and looked to each other, both feeling sorry for the dead elderly woman.
“Well, Transport is here so I’m gonna haul her in. We’ll have definite answers for you soon, but I’m guessing that prescription for heart meds will point us towards the truth,” the pathologist said.
“Alright, thank you, Allan,” Officer Kline answered.
“Some broken bottles scared her to death?” Her partner questioned.
“Sad isn’t it?”
Michael watched from his bedroom window, his heart pounding in his chest. The police were soon joined by a van from the county coroner’s office. He could hear his mother singing to herself as she folded laundry down the hall, an old song she learned at church. She always sang it when someone passed on. It made his heart ache. How could he possibly be so stupid? He knew damn well that old lady was tormented regularly by Charlie and his friends.
His cell phone rang and he knew it would be Charlie. Michael didn’t want to answer the phone but he knew if he didn’t Charlie would just show up on his front steps. He turned and walked over to his dresser, picked up the phone, but it stopped ringing the moment his fingers touched it. He sighed. It saved him a conversation he wasn’t ready to have, how he wanted nothing more than to make some excuse to get out of their plans. The phone chimed as text messages began to come through, Savannah questioning him about his choice of new friends. He didn’t have the heart to explain to her that he desperately wanted guy friends, to stop being tormented for only hanging out with the ginger girl who lived above the video store with her single father. He threw his phone on the bed and went back to the window to peek down at the scene at his neighbor’s house. Ms. Gretchen was always a weird woman but she didn’t deserve to die. He noticed her strange lawn ornament had been broken into a thousand pieces and a feeling gnawed at him, he could think of a certain group of boys who would do such a thing.
Michael was waiting once more by his window, a spot that used to be his looking glass to the neighborhood, now it felt like looking out over a prisoner’s last waltz to ride the lightening. He stepped back; his nerves were eating a hole in his stomach as he watched for the signal. Through the blinds on his window he could see a bright yellow flash, it lasted only a few seconds before going dark again. Charlie was waiting. Michael stole a quick glance at himself in the large mirror above his dresser. He certainly didn’t appear very sure of himself but at least the dark would hide it. This would be the first time he was allowed to hang out with the popular kids around the neighborhood, those who ruled the sidewalks after dusk.
He had watched them cruising on their bikes, kicking over trash cans and abusing mailboxes. He was only an observer for three years until his time finally came. It was after school while he pedaled home on his new viper freestyle bike, a birthday gift from his mother, that Charlie hailed him. His knees shook as he rode over to the undisputed king of the cul-de-sac.
“Hi, Charlie,” Michael answered cautiously.
“Looks like you got a seriously awesome mom.”
“Yeah, she bought this for me.”
“I saw her hauling it in from the trunk of her car last week. She’s pretty hot for being your mom.” Charlie winked.
“Um, thank you,” Michael responded awkwardly.
“So, you wanna ride around with us Friday night?” Charlie asked.
“Sure,” Michael answered, his face blushed a little bit but he tried to make himself appear cool and collected.
“Alright, meet us outside of the crazy lady’s house around eight.”
“No problem, she’s my neighbor.”
“Yeah, I know.” Charlie laughed; it was more at Michael than with him.
“I’ll call you Friday, give me your number,” Michael told Charlie his cell number and watched him ride away saying, “See you then.”
Michael rode home so fast he hardly remembered the ride at all. That was two days before he awoke to police in his neighbor’s yard and he watched them wheel her away, covered in a sheet through the broken blue pieces of the odd bottle tree she kept on the front lawn.
His anxiety multiplied, he almost wished his mother would bust him. A mixture of disgust and fear twisted his gut as he snuck out the window. It was one of those nights where the moon was nothing more than a little golden eye watching over the world, frozen mid-blink. Its time of being full and oppressive passed and now it hardly cast enough light to guide him through the front yard with his bike.
“Over here.” Charlie hailed him.
There were two other shadows beside Charlie, Michael could tell by their silhouettes they were Charlie’s friends Jose and Kyle, his usual sidekicks. Kyle was taller than anyone else in their class and kept his head hidden beneath a baseball cap cocked on the side of his head. Jose was stout, bordering on being overweight, and wore oversized clothes which only accentuated the rectangular shape of his body.
“Hey, guys,” Michael said quietly.
“Let’s cruise around for a while.” Charlie said and threw his leg over his bike. Michael didn’t say much, he only followed along. The night felt too quiet and with each trashcan they kicked over his insides jumped. His mind filled with thoughts of having to explain to his mom why he was being escorted home by a police officer, why he was being charged with vandalism, why he was hanging out with the kids who tormented Ms. Gretchen into a heart attack.
“What’s the matter with you?” Charlie asked.
“Nothin’,” Michael answered.
“You scared?” Jose teased.
“No,” he asserted, but his voice didn’t sound convincing even to himself.
“You’re gonna be,” Kyle said.
It all hit home to Michael, he wasn’t invited out to become a part of the group. He was going to be the entertainment.
“I should probably head back before my mom realizes I’m gone…”
“No,” Charlie cut him off, “not until we visit the witch house.”
“Your neighbor’s house, the crazy lady.”
“Why do you want to go in there?”
“I don’t believe you,” Jose said.
“Neither do I,” said Kyle. “How about you, Charlie?”
“Come on,” Michael said. “She just passed away, it feels disrespectful.”
“I don’t give a rat’s ass,” Charlie said.
“If you want to ride with us, you gotta prove you’re not a pussy.” Jose said.
Michael glanced over his shoulder. He was too far away from his house to make it home without them catching him but he decided if they went to Ms. Gretchen’s house he could easily sneak away and make it through his bedroom window. It would mean never being allowed to hang with them again and more than likely some big time ribbing at school, but he’d have to live with it. He’d never hear the end of it from Savannah, she’d wrinkle her freckled face and roll her eyes and say, “Told ya so.”
“Alright, let’s go,” Michael said.
Michael could see the light on in the living room of his house, his mom was watching TV like she always did to try to lull her brain into sleep. He was so close, yet it felt like a thousand miles away from his spot on the sidewalk.
“She was a witch, ya know,” Charlie said.
Michael remained silent. He could feel three sets of eyes on him, gauging his reaction.
“She deserved to die,” Charlie said callously.
“She was just a superstitious old woman,” Michael spoke up, the nagging voice of Savannah in his mind warning him he was stuck and it was his fault for accepting such an invitation and that he better be careful not to set the three bullies off.
“If you’re not afraid of her then go sit in her chair, the one the news said they found her dead in…alone.”
Michael felt his stomach turn at the morbid dare thrown at him.
“Go on, wuss. What’s wrong?” Charlie said.
“I think that ginger girl he always hangs out with has more balls than him,” Jose teased.
“We should’ve invited her instead,” Kyle said. “Maybe next time.”
The three of them laughed and they sounded like hyenas, cruel and violent, looking more for prey than a friend.
It took everything in Michael not to lash out but the insults they were throwing around about Savannah warned him that they were about to target her too if he didn’t play along.
“Ok.” He took his first step through the dark front yard.
Beneath the sole of his sneakers he felt something crunch. He hesitated when he realized he was passing over the spot where her bottle tree once stood, its blue glass glittering in the sun. The frame of it lay like a skeleton in the grass, and fitted to three of its arms were blue bottles, still intact. Savannah told him one Halloween the significance of such a decoration, her grandmother had one a long time ago when Savannah was only a little girl and she was still allowed to visit her mom.
“It’s to trap evil spirits in, like little blue prisons.”
The memory of her solemn explanation sent a chill through his body. Savannah was always that way, too quiet, seemed to contemplate everything, and trusted no one but him. Michael felt guilty for not responding to her text messages and would have rather spent the night watching those cheesy horror movies she liked so much than the situation he willingly walked into, even snuck out of the house to be a part of. His heart kept screaming how stupid he really was while his brain desperately sought a way out of sitting in Ms. Gretchen’s chair.
“Get a move on, chicken!” one of them teased. He didn’t really know which of them said it. By this point they all sounded the same.
Michael reached the front door. The police had only removed the yellow tape that same afternoon since her death was ruled natural causes, a heart attack. Once again he was filled with remorse; he never remembered regretting anything so much in all thirteen years of his life. He hoped the locked door would be a reprieve but when he turned away after trying the knob Charlie trotted over.
“The side window is open, go through there.”
“How do you know that?”
“It just is, now go.”
The realization this was all a set up was confirmed by the window standing open when he rounded the front of the house. It sickened him to think of the three under the tree breaking into a dead woman’s house just to force him to go inside. How heartless and cold could they be to treat her death like some sick game? Michael wanted to run but he was now on the opposite side of the house and would never make it to his without being noticed, and more than likely beaten bloody before he reached his front door. He held his breath and hoisted himself up. The house still smelled like her, the scent of lavender and potting soil. He had only met her a few times but she seemed absolutely harmless, just a lonely old woman from the country who liked planting flowers and happened to own an odd lawn decoration.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered as he snaked his way inside, hoping the old woman’s spirit wouldn’t take offense to his intrusion.
The living room was dark but the shadow of the recliner was unmistakable. It sat before the small television set and coffee table still littered with gardening magazines. He took one step in its direction, his mind still searching for any way out. A shadow stirred in the chair and he fell back, too frightened to scream.
“Scared ya,” a familiar voice said.
“Savannah?” Michael gasped and finally drew air into his lungs after holding his breath the entire time he crawled in through the window.
“Are you more surprised that I’m here, or that those douche bags planned this all day during class?”
“You knew they were going to do this?”
“Not until a couple hours ago, seems they like to tell everyone about their pranks. That girl Kelly, the one Charlie’s going out with or whatever was talking about it down at the video store.”
“And you came to help me?”
“That’s what friends do, Mike,” she said. Her voice was flat and nearly unemotional, as always.
“Does your dad know you’re here?”
“No, he thinks we’re watching movies with your mom tonight.”
“We need to get out of here. I’m creeped out.”
“There’s no danger in here,” she said.
Outside, the unmistakable sound of shattering glass and laughter drifted in through the open window. The three bullies must have found the remaining bottles on Ms. Gretchen’s broken bottle tree.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you think Ms. Gretchen would construct a tree like that for no reason?” she asked.
“If there were spirits trapped in those bottles, they’re out now.”
A thick silence descended and he realized the laughter and sounds of breaking glass had cut suddenly short. Screams erupted in the front yard, sending Michael to cower beside Savannah.
“Their slingshots set them free, now they gotta deal with them,” she said.
“We gotta get out of here,” Michael said, not fully understanding the ramblings of his best friend.
“Out the back window, we’ll sneak around to the side of your house,” Savannah answered, “but don’t you dare look at them.”
“My granny, when I used to visit her, would say that when someone is gettin’ what they deserve you better stand back or you might get a little too. Those spirits are real angry now after being locked up. They’re hungry for boys like those…and you were hangin’ around with them.”
“Was Ms. Gretchen a bad person, then?” he asked, glancing at the lonesome silhouette of her favorite chair and feeling sadness gnaw at him.
“No, just easy prey. They want all types, but when they find souls like Charlie and his friends they enjoy it more. They’re things of darkness, they feed on it. When the sun goes down they go searchin’ for humans to torment, but they’re attracted to the blue glass and get trapped in them. Some die when the sun rises, but others are stronger. Charlie and his stooges made a big mistake.”
Michael only nodded in the dark, the sound of screaming turned his stomach and made him desperate to get home. “We have to get out of here!”
“Follow me,” she said.
Officer Warren was the first on the scene, his second time at the same house in less than a week. After numerous calls from the neighbors reporting screaming, he was sent back to the house with the yard full of blue glass and the skeletal remains of a bottle tree. Three figures writhed in the grass. He approached slowly, flashlight and pistol ready. He quickly realized they were the neighborhood kids, the same ones he knew were responsible for kicking over trash cans every Friday night but had yet to catch them red handed.
“Stay still,” he ordered.
The beam of his flashlight revealed blood…a lot of it.
“Tell me what happened here,” the officer said.
Two of the boys continued to scream and tear at their faces, their eyes crimson holes weeping endless bloody tears. Officer Warren’s heart stuttered when he saw blue shards sparkle in the light he kept trained on their eyeless faces. Their useless sockets were full of blue glass.
A third, still wearing a sideways baseball hat, cried the only intelligible words of the group. “We broke the bottle tree! We set them free!”
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